Tuesday 10 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (10th Part)

Ha! And did you think that Zadie Smith was going to let us, readers, off the hook? Cracking analysis this week. For parts 1-9, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Note to readers: a novel is a two-way street

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing - I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music.The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.

This is a conception of "reading" we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practise reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason.

The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park. What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston's capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland's strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert's faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought?

The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 12th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. ooooh that is challenging...trying to become a talented reader...I'm trying!! Greetings from Mexico

  2. What a brilliant point. I don't think we consider the skill that it takes to be an effective reader enough. Reading and writing is indeed a two way street and the best experiences come from offering the most open mind, I totally agree.

  3. This truly is a tidbit to chew on. Something that I hadn't really thought about before. I'm chewing and wondering...

  4. Interesting analogy between a reader and a musician. I see a closer connection between a musician and an actor because both need to add to the markings on the page through interpretation.

    I believe the best writers, best actors and best musicians manage to reach all their audience on a certain level. I do agree that the best writers take the readers out of themselves, but I don’t agree that reading is as much work as writing. Good editing could be as intense as writing, though.

    This essay certainly expresses an interesting point of view. Something to think about.

  5. Now that is a new angle that readers fail writers. Perhaps, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that. Sometimes a book will fail to capture my attention and if I don't give it a chance then yes, I've failed. But even when I try hard some books are just not going to make the grade with me. We are all so different that variety is key to attracting a big audience perhaps?

  6. I think that to be a good reader you have to be a willing reader. There is nothing more offensive to me than the book I'm required to read. I think just about all of us have endured the school experience of reading literary works. It wasn't the reading of the works in themselves I detested, but the fact that I couldn't choose to read them at the moment in my life when I was ready to read them. Needless to say, I've found myself rereading all the books I had to read previously because I just felt ready and wanting at a certain moment. So I can say that unless my soul is just screaming for a book, I don't even touch it because I don't wish for my experience with it to become dull and ineffective. Reading is a great passion for those of us who enjoy it, and I really believe we can't enjoy it unless we truly want to. And then we can enter the writer's world and both maximize our experience and give the writer full credit for the created masterpiece. Thanks again, Cuban. In your world, there's always something to think about... deeply!


  7. I think you have to be open to read. Just as you open the book you need to open your mind.

    Love Renee xoxo

  8. I am reminded of something Toni Morrison said when a fan complained about how difficult her books were to read. Ms. Morrison calmly responded. “That is literature.” Since I also have difficulty with some of her books, I had since felt that maybe I didn’t measure up as a Literature reader. I like Nevine’s comment about choosing to read a book in a moment in life when one is ready. Zadie Smith is absolutely right about “A novel is a two-way street.” It is true not only in the ways she mentions. As a writer, I am enriched by my readers’ interpretations of something I’ve written. Often, they find layers of meaning that were only subliminal in my awareness. Sometimes the meaning completely surprises me. To gain that enhanced understanding of something I thought I knew well is a true gift, and I am forever grateful to them for pointing it out.

  9. I have love reading both your comments and the post again.

    Like Nevine, I, too, was forced to read literature just for the sake of it being classical (no, me neither).

    Then, there were the books that I felt I HAD TO READ. Has that ever happened to any of you? I opened Isabel Allende's 'La Casa de los Espiritus' only to close it on page nine. Herman Hesse never captured my imagination and he is due a read soon. I only came to appreciate Toni Morrison and Alice Walker in my uni years when I read them in English. Then it all made sense.

    I do agree with Zadie that we ought to make that ultimate effort. The first time I read the South African writer Nadine Gordimer I thought her prose too complex. But little by little, her world opened up to me and we both connected. Yes, that connection happens from both ends, it's not just the writer who has to make the effort to reach the reader, but the latter also has to stick out his/her hand and make contact.

    Like Nevine, I am now re-reading the so-called classics. I loved 'Tess...' this time because it gave me an insight into Hardy that I missed completely the first time around. I have Austen in the pipeline. I have just ordered a copy of 'Lolita' from my local library because the first time I read it I was too young and a novel so full of symbols gets lost in the translation to an adolescent's world.

    Thank you very much for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  10. It is said that the teacher appears when the student is ready. That great book by Thomas Hardy that I read when I was 13, and plagued me with its fatalism, isn't the same book I reread a couple of years ago in a Lit. class. Words the same, my lifetime finally ready. I wish to catch up to all great efforts, and be rewarded with originality and imagination.. I sort of look for "light bulb" moments..if there aren't any early on in a book, what's the point? I honestly want every book I read to be outstanding..but my task is easier than the writer's, I'm sure.
    And thank you for your weekly challenge..

  11. You are so so right about that, you need to read to be able to write well.

  12. wow. the next time I read something, I'll use as much effort the writer. I'm sure that'll be a much more rewarding experience than using my all so ever present biases, all the time.

    I'm glad I thought about something today that would have most likely never entered my mind elsewhere...

    as for your comment, well thanks. I try to keep goodwill a top priority

  13. Excellent series CIL. Smith is right. Any novel
    worth its salt requires an attentive reader
    willing to do some work {albeit enjoyable if
    you truly are a reader} Tony Morrison is always
    worth the effort. I especially found Song of
    Solomon and my beloved, Beloved to be two of
    the best relationships I have had. Waiting
    breathlessly for the next installment.

  14. Many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.

  15. A perspective of writing that I've never consciously articulated, not even in my own mind. Smith is correct: a novel is a two-way street and the best of novels can demand as much from the reader as from the author. Something to remember when I'm writing.



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